The tall are tired of being looked down on: Tim Harrison finds much to deplore in his overview of a heightist society

BRITISH attitudes to height are full of ambiguity. On the one hand, it seems, everyone aspires to be tall. And yet being 6ft 4in means one receives some adverse reaction or comment almost every day.

A growing population, better diet and the fact that Homo sapiens is gaining height through evolution should mean that being tall is the most natural thing in the world. But instead, 6ft 4in, an eminently sensible height, is viewed as abnormal, comical or just plain annoying by the more height-challenged sections of the population.

Britain remains an essentially heightist society. Walk into any building more than 100 years old, and we find we need to stoop to avoid injury. London Underground's Central Line was designed for people who are 5ft 8in in their stockinged feet. Quaint English country pubs, so beloved of guide books, necessitate wearing a crash helmet. Tall people cannot go to the Albert Hall unless they sit in a private box.

Go to any public performance, from the cinema to a football match to the theatre, and the attitudes that built the old pub, the Central Line and the Albert Hall are out in the open. People expect you to sit at the back, take umbrage as you do your best to shrink into a chair designed for a five-year-old, and say 'serves you right' when you develop chronic knee-joint problems as a result of years spent squeezing into cramped viewing positions.

Tall people rarely make it to the highest positions in politics, the professions or the arts, and given the anti-tall feeling that dominates, it is not difficult to see why. Tall people are generally shyer less ambitious and more likely to stand down in an argument. Compare that with the glut of short men who have been world leaders and dominated their chosen fields: Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, Cromwell, Henry VIII, Lloyd George - the list goes on. And in our own times, names such as Mel Gibson, Harold Wilson, Jacques Delors or Mick Jagger are indicative of the extra drive that the less tall have.

Tallness is often the butt of ridicule in the media, rather than something to be admired - think of Basil Fawlty, Stephen Fry and Eric Morecambe. And think also of the shorter 'straight man' to the comical tall man in so many double acts: Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies, for instance.

It is a widely held misconception that tall people have an easy life. The myth of the 'tall, dark, handsome stranger', which states that tall men are more attractive to women, belongs to the world of Mills and Boon novels. The majority of the world's most beautiful women, the 'supermodels' and heiresses, go out with men who are shorter than they.

So where did the idea of tall men being privileged come from? One theory is that it is a hangover from the days when most people were under 5ft 6in, and the tall would have an advantage in battle. But even here there are precedents to counter this argument. Robin Hood's faithful right-hand man was not called 'Little' John out of affection but out of ridicule. (And Robin Hood was more than a match for him with a quarterstaff.) And, at Agincourt, it was the short, unmounted English archers who won the day against their mounted, haughty French opponents. Even historically, the tall man finds success elusive.

What can be done? So far, no pressure groups based on height have sprung up, no 'Height Lib' movement has acted on any groundswell of tall public opinion.

There are, of course, certain standard bearers of tallness to whom we can look for leadership: Arnold Schwarzenegger; most rugby union players; Errol Flynn; but these are mere figureheads, not revolutionaries. And there are those who argue that Schwarzenegger sold out when he made Twins with Danny DeVito.

Direct action could include a boycott of heightist venues: the Albert Hall, the Central Line, country pubs, and so on. But this would mean a lot of hardship for the tall community, without any real harm coming to the perpetrators of the injustice.

It seems that the injustice will go on, with the tall suffering their burden in silence. And it does continue: new theatres open with no leg room in the stalls, new buses come into service on which one needs to stoop if there are no seats (or contract arthritis if there are) and the hatchback car has become the bane of every tall person's life. The conspiracy of silence among the short is all pervasive, and the tall must face the brunt of their actions without complaint.